“Silent but deadly.”
The physically disabled hero has long been a staple of martial arts, to the extent that is is sometimes referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as “cripsploitation”. The One-armed Boxer, The Crippled Masters, Zatoichi – it’s a genre that survives more recently than you may think, with Mat Fraser, recently seen in American Horror Story: Freak Show, starring in 2009’s Kung Fu Flid. While this is rarer for heroines, they are not immune, with Japan giving us the Crimson Bat series, reviewed elsewhere on this site. This is another entry, Wong playing the titular heroine, Ya Ba, who is unable to speak or hear, but can still fight a mean battle, assisted by reflective wristbands that let her see who’s sneaking up from behind, in lieu of hearing them.
She comes into possession of a set of pearls, taking them off some robbers with extreme prejudice. However, this brings down the wrath of Miss Liu (Huang), leader of her own gang, and whose brother was one of the robbers. While her first attempt to kill Ya is unsuccessful, Lui’s poisoned flying daggers do injure her. Ya is found and nursed back to health by kindly cloth-dyer Yang Shun (Ching); romance blossoms, and the pair marry, with Ya figuratively hanging up her wristbands; she actually puts them away in a box. That’s relevant, because her husband ends up entrapped into responsibility for a friend’s gambling debt by Liu, and she demands he steal Ya’s wristbands as payback. That opens the way for Liu and about five billion henchmen (count may be approximate) to launch their attack. But that’s not the only threat she faces, since lurking in the wings is another talented master, with a previously relationship to Ya and who was left with a nasty facial scar for his pains.
The fights are good. Really good. As in, the final battle between Ya and Lui (below) may be the best of the era I’ve seen between two women – like most of the action here, it’s fast, hard-hitting and imaginative, weakened only by some unsubtle wirework. The film is also bloodily messy, to a somewhat surprising extent, and both Wong and Huang make for highly-effective characters, the latter making up for the former’s silence. However, the movie grinds to a halt in the middle, as the focus shifts off Ya to her husband, who is both a great deal less interesting and almost unlikeable. The film is also hampered by poor availability: while the version I watched was as close to complete as possible, that required a combination from three different sources, including one print dubbed into German(!) and another which was sub-VHS quality with a large logo in one corner. That helps leave this short of getting our “seal of approval,” but if a good copy ever becomes available, we might re-visit it. For as I said to Chris, what’s not to love about a wife who never says a word?
Y’know, our couch really isn’t so bad, when you get used to it. :)
Dir: Wu Ma
Star: Sally Wong (a.k.a. Helen Ma), Shirley Huang, Ching Tang, Wu Ma